Visitor Motivations

Why do people go to museums? Researcher John Falk came up with five categories to describe motivations for museum visits: experience seeker, explorer, facilitator, professional/hobbyist, and recharger.

An individual is probably each of these identities at some point, and often has multiple motivations for any given museum visit.

Experience seekers typically want to check off items on their bucket lists. When they come to DC, they know they want to see the Capitol, the White House, and the monuments. When I took a mini-vacation to Philadelphia, my friend and I couldn’t just not see the Liberty Bell – it was part of the visiting-Philadelphia-experience.

Explorers have a general curiosity and interest in going new places and learning new things. I often consider myself an explorer, and part of my explorer mentality is the idea that there is at least something interesting everywhere. (The most interesting places are the ones with more than one interesting something.) In DC, I can explore endlessly. There are many small museums beyond the obvious tourist attractions, and there are always new exhibits and events, along with plenty of neighborhoods to walk.

Facilitators make a social experience out of the museum visit. These visits might be family outings or dates, school field trips or adventures with friends. Out of my 74 Weekly Museum Visits so far, 21 were with other people: family, friends, fellow museum professionals, and a Meetup group I used to co-coordinate.

Professional/hobbyist visitors go to a particular museum because it relates to a particular professional or amateur interest. Because Weekly Museum Visits is a goal I made for myself based on my own professional interests, every visit falls in this category. This category also applies to philatelists (stamp collectors) visiting a postal museum, botany students visiting an arboretum, and photographers visiting a photography exhibit.

Rechargers used to be called spiritual pilgrims but were renamed; I find it useful to keep both terms in mind. They are people looking for peace, respite, meditation, and/or a religious experience. For me, the places I go when I want to recharge are the United States Botanic Garden and Georgetown Waterfront Park. Often, when visiting a new site in search of inner peace, I won’t know if it will lift my spirits until I’ve actually been there, but the motivation remains. And sometimes I’ll be surprised by what recharges me, even though I wasn’t expecting it. It’s interesting to note that for faith-based museums and historic houses of worship, people of the particular faith often visit as rechargers, while people outside the faith visit as explorers, simply hoping to learn more.

This month, I will be visiting a new site each week and paying attention to the theme of visitor motivation. I had initially hoped to have February’s theme be a particular type of museum (like faith-based museums or science museums), but in truth, it is hard to schedule visits only to a certain kind of museum, when I have already been to so many! My adventures in temping through a temp agency (stories for another blog, perhaps) have taken up my weekdays, and most of the museums I have not yet visited are only open or accessible to me during the week, so I have limited options on the weekends. I guess that’s what happens when you have already explored so much.


February’s blog theme is Visitor Motivations.

About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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